• U.S.

The Press: Curious Fellow

17 minute read

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For a few days last September, German bombers were expected over London’s fabled Fleet Street at almost any moment. Gas masks took their place among the teacups and typewriters in the “big rooms” (city rooms in the U. S.) of England’s enormous daily newspapers, and air-raid drills were held between deadlines.

Shiniest target in Fleet Street or anywhere else in London is the spectacular “Black Glass House” of Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express. Editorially, however, the Express was far from worried, shouting nearly every day across the top of its front page: THE DAILY EXPRESS DECLARES THAT BRITAIN WILL NOT BE INVOLVED IN A EUROPEAN WAR THIS YEAR, OR NEXT YEAR EITHER. Readers were not told that dark paint had been daubed over the gleaming black glass walls inside the courtyard of the Express building, that its principal editors had been fitted with asbestos coveralls, that it had spent $1,080 for sandbag protection and was drilling its staff for a quick dash to a gasproof cellar 60 ft. below the street.

The published optimism of the Express paid big. Same day the Munich agreement was signed, auditors began totting up Express sales for the “crisis” month of September, found they had reached an alltime peak of 2,520,205 a day. In calmer October they dropped slightly to 2,507,137. No other newspaper in history has ever averaged above 2,500,000 for even one month. Crowed the Express: ”Peace . . . met the demand.”

To meet the demands of Lord Beaverbrook, workmen last week finished turning a former corset factory into a new and larger “Black Glass House”* in the great industrial city of Manchester, 189 miles northwest of London. Costing just under $1,000,000, the new Manchester plant will continue to turn out at least ten of the multiform editions of the Express, which is printed simultaneously in three cities (London, Manchester, Glasgow) so it can arrive in every corner of the British Isles along with its readers’ breakfast muffins.

Six stories high and a glistening jet-black, the new building stands out in Manchester’s dingy Great Ancoats Street like a jackdaw in a crowd of sparrows, is admittedly about twice as large as necessary. Manchester Expressmen, celebrating quietly last week over glasses of “bitter” in the nextdoor Crown and Kettle, were doubtful about the reason for this, but in London Lord Beaverbrook explained. Said he: “It exemplifies my type.”

The high British literacy rate, the voracious British reading habit, the density of the British population and the narrow British boundaries make possible the unique British journalistic institution of national newspapers, written in London, circulated to the ends of the Isles. These papers—largely copied after the cheapest U. S. models, or British copies of them— enjoy whopping circulations, and in the past two decades have made four men lords of the press in money and influence as well as title.

Press Lord No. 4 is Julius Salter Elias, Lord Southwood, a onetime errand boy who has high-pressured his undistinguished Daily Herald to the 2,000,000 mark. No. 3 press lord is Lord Camrose of the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post* (700,000), a Conservative who suffers from gout and jaundice. No. 2 is Lord Rothermere. He acquired control of the Daily Mail (1.530,000) from his brother, Lord Northcliffe, a sensationalist who fathered the whole lordly breed. No. 1, by intelligence, ability, resource and his gift for the common touch—as well as by circulation figures— is William Maxwell (”Max”) Aitken, Baron Beaverbrook. He is a fair little man whose possessions include the smile and manners of a spoiled bad boy, two other newspapers besides the Express, two sons, a daughter, two houses, a personal fortune of some $40,000,000. He has a reputation for extravagance and big-time caprice which caused no less an analyzer of men of affairs than H. G. Wells to observe: “Lord Beaverbrook has as much brains and imagination as anyone else, but he is impish.”

Beaverbrook of Maple. If, in 1917 when he was elevated to the peerage, Max Aitken had assumed the name of his birthplace, he would now be Lord Maple. He was born in Maple, Ont., May 25, 1879. Instead, he took the more euphonious name of Beaverbrook, New Brunswick, near the town of Newcastle where he grew up. Sixth son of an impecunious Scots parson, he tramped around Canada, washing drugstore medicine bottles, selling sewing machines, reading law. Social legend says he still owes 15¢ to a barber in Saint John. Suddenly one day he thought: What I want to do first is to make a great deal of money.

Five years later he was 30 and worth $5,000,000.

The surface facts seem impishly simple: backed at first by an elderly Halifax financier, he engineered mergers of banks, utilities, steel and cement companies, collecting ever bigger commissions. His greatest merger, which formed the $37,500,000 Canada Cement Co. Ltd., was almost a Dominion scandal (which Beaverbrook blames on a disappointed rival). But he was already tired of mere moneymaking.

In 1907 he went to England to sell Canadian bonds. Three years later, his rich Conservative customers asked him to stand for Parliament.

“E. F. T.” The constituency in which Aitken ran was Ashton-Under-Lyne, a Liberal stronghold. The lively little financier had brought with him from Canada something besides bonds, a passionate but practical belief in Empire. To keep the British Empire whole and strong he hit upon “Empire Free Trade”—which means the building of a tariff wall around the Empire and the tearing down of all tariffs within it.

Most immediate effect of this would have been to raise the prices of meat, butter and milk which Englishmen were buying in large duty-free quantities from nearby European nations. “E. F. T.” has never been tremendously popular except among English farmers and dairymen, but that was the platform on which Unionist (Conservative) Candidate Aitken won his seat and kept it for six years. It has also served as the keystone of his personality and papers ever since.

A far more agile conversationalist than any of his fellow press lords—or such transatlantic contemporaries as William Randolph Hearst or Joseph Medill Patterson—Maxwell Aitken was never noted for his powers of debate in Commons. But he was an adroit political tactician. He won his peerage for ”merging” the Lloyd George “Win the War” Cabinet in 1917, was made Minister of Information (propaganda) a year later, and in 1922 shoved his friend Andrew Bonar Law into the Prime Ministry. This was a shortlived triumph with a painful ending. Bonar Law died of cancer of the throat a year later. His last words for his little friend “Max” were: “You’re a curious fellow.”

Not until he had been out of Parliament 15 years did Lord Beaverbrook see his old hobby horse E. F. T. come home a winner. Taking the stump with an alarm bell which rang every minute to indicate that $5,000 worth of foreign foods had gone into British mouths, he ranted through the general elections of 1931 with such good effect that Stanley Baldwin took over part of E. F. T. in the Conservative Party platform.

Next year Baldwin signed the Ottawa agreements, which were the first Empire-wide tariff plan. And last week even the Express chimed in with modified praise for the U. S.-Great Britain-Canada trade pact which, in effect, cuts the U. S. in on any E. F. T. policy that may eventually be adopted.

The Papers. During his years in Parliament Lord Beaverbrook did little else except tend his private fortune. In 1917, his appetite for the newspaper business whetted by his work in the Ministry of Information, he bought controlling interest in the doddering Daily Express for $85,500. The same afternoon he had to draw $250,000 more from the bank to pay pressing liabilities. Lord Northcliffe, then at the height of his spectacular career, advised him to stay out of Fleet Street, warned: “You’ll lose everything you have.” This dare Beaverbrook took.

With a grand piano, divan, lounge chairs, desks, and four electric heaters, he moved into an upper floor of the Express offices, then on grubby Shoe Lane. For months he practically lived there and learned the newspaper business.

First big challenge came from Northcliffe in the celebrated Free Insurance War. The Mail, with nearly two million readers, offered £1,000 free accident insurance to every subscriber, and the Express, with 450,000 readers, countered with £2,000. In a few months both were offering £10,000. The war cost the Express $600,000 a year and the Mail, with its larger circulation, nearly twice as much.* Ten years later another premium war swept Fleet Street and bled $5,000,000 from the Express and its three big rivals— the Daily Mail (1,530,000), Daily Herald (2,000,000) and News Chronicle (1,330,000). The Laborite Daily Herald started it by offering a complete set of Dickens for a few shillings. Beaverbrook was in Berlin. He hurried back and called a parley of the Press Lords at the Savoy Hotel. All were ready to compromise, but Beaverbrook had decided to rub his colleagues’ noses in the mess they had made. As he put it: “I drew my sword and swore not to place it back in its sheath until I had punished them.”

For the next two years British newspaper readers could get anything from can openers to radios free. It was expensive but it built circulations. The Herald was first to reach 2,000,000 (in 1933), only to be outstripped by the Express.

In 1927 Beaverbrook suffered another severe personal loss when Lady Beaverbrook, the handsome daughter of a Halifax army general, died after 21 years of happy married life. Thereafter the routine job of being a newspaper publisher became almost as boring as money grubbing. One day “the Beaver” locked his office and announced: “I am leaving the Daily Express and never coming back. You young fellows must carry on. Make it a great newspaper, won’t you?”

As it turned out later, this was more impishness. Lord Beaverbrook still closely supervises the Daily Express and its sister papers, the Sunday Express (1,500,000) and Evening Standard (400,000), although his office ranges halfway round the world.

The telephone is his indispensable staff of authority. Whether he is nursing his asthma in Arizona or lunching at Stornaway House, a mile and a half away from the Express building, he is in almost continuous touch with his editors—ordering, suggesting, criticizing, cajoling, in his curiously low-pitched, insinuating telephone voice.

Principal executives like General Manager Ewart John Robertson run back and forth all day when “The Old Man” is in London. On the rare occasions when his Lordship goes to the Express, Manager Robertson (who met him as a bellboy carrying his bags into a Canadian hotel) has been known to see that all cigaret butts were removed from his path.

The control room of the Express shifts mostly between Stornaway House and Cherkley Court in Surrey, a 750-acre estate 20 miles out of London which Beaverbrook bought soon after he went to England. Both houses have phones in most of their 20-odd rooms, in their gardens.

On weekdays he is always up before 8, listens first to a typed summary of news from his own papers read by his secretary. Breakfast and lunch are scanty.

Between conferences, calls and bouts with his two dictaphones, he gets an hour’s ride or walk, bolts tea and sandwiches from a solid silver plate, naps.

Dinner at 8145 is usually attended by three or four uninvited guests (if too many come, they have to split portions). If the talk becomes listless, the impish Beaver does not conceal his distress. Raising his thin arms over his head he exclaims: “Oh God, I’m bored!” His Canadian birth has not prevented Lord Beaverbrook from conforming to the Old World type of the powerful man with the courage of his caprice. His newspapers are not strictly newspapers. Morning after George VI was crowned, the Express played the story on page one but the banner headline went to Dick Merrill’s transatlantic flight.

What the Beaverbrook papers do carry, however, is lots of reader entertainment-prepared by the best talent the Beaver can buy—and, most important, a running fire of pep talks and admonitions to the British people: BE OF GOOD CHEER . . . PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES . . . BUY A PEACE GIFT . . . PAY YOUR DEBTS AND KEEP TRADE BRISK.

This sort of boys’ camp leadership of the people is what keeps the Beaver busy on his telephones and illustrates his idea of the publisher’s duty to his readership. To millions of English “small-means men” and their families, it is the most appealing kind of publishing. Some of the latest copies of the Express to reach the U. S. were filled with their usual budget of post-crisis news: the Vicar of Southwold had seen a genuine sea monster offshore, a dog was tried for biting a dustman, a Wiltshire schoolmistress had found a mushroom over eleven inches wide. And across an entire page the Express splashed a row of grinning British faces, exhorted: “GET THE MONDAY MORNING SMILE!”

For all his admiration of some more conventional publishing practices (he makes his employes read and, where possible, imitate TIME), Lord Beaverbrook chooses his own methods. Last year they were good enough to net his papers $3,750,000. But the Express puts extra nest eggs away every year in a basket called the “Secret Reserve.” This now totals about $3,750,000, and will furnish ammunition for any new circulation war.

Oddest fact about Beaverbrook as a publisher is the amount of kidding and criticism the Beaver can take from the people who work for him. Evelyn Waugh. a writer of fantastic novels (Decline And Fall, Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust) was once an Evening Standard reporter. He has repeatedly and maliciously caricatured Beaverbrook as Lord Monomark or Lord Copper of the Daily Excess.

Monomark is a ludicrous egocentric who eats little but raw onions and oatmeal, is surrounded by slavish sycophants who toady to his ignorant misconceptions, abuses his distracted underlings and usually triumphs by some absurdly fortuitous accident. In 1930 Lord Beaverbrook sent Waugh to cover the Ethiopian coronation. Waugh repaid him with a lampooning in Black Mischief. Later Lord Beaverbrook sent Waugh to cover the Ethiopian war. Waugh bladdered him again in Scoop.

After ex-Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was made an Earl last year, a writer on Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard casually summed up the long-standing political feud between the two men, concluding: ”Did Beaverbrook get anything from it? Yes. He got an attack of asthma. He has it still. He is no longer a political force.

He is a medical problem. Baldwin can leave him to his doctors.” David Low, the greatest cartoonist of the time, amuses himself with periodic laughs at Beaverbrook’s expense in the Evening Standard. A sample is Low’s picture of Beaverbrook at Christmas time, the press lord a tiny figure mailed like Richard the Lion-Hearted, catechizing Santa Claus for failing to bring enough Empire-made toys down his chimney (see cut, p. 30).

Recently Beaverbrook polled the Express staff on the question: ”Do you approve of Express policies?” The answer came back almost unanimously NO. The impish Beaver was delighted with his hirelings’ impishness.

The Friends. Chief insider in the ‘Beaverbrook set” is fat, bland, arrogant Valentine Edward Charles (”Val”) Browne, Viscount Castlerosse, who is regarded in London as an English Walter Winchell, gets $25,000 a year for turning out a half page of heavy chitchat for the Sunday Express and Daily Express. Sample: “I have had to give up reading bridge articles, because I notice that Y and Z always get the good hands, whereas poor old A and B usually only save a slam by preternatural cunning. I know so well what A and B feel.” The two Beaverbrook sons are in the group—Max Jr., general manager of the Sunday Express, and Peter, who spends most of his time automobile racing.

Other assorted intimates are Winston Churchill, Noel Coward, Novelist Rebecca West. Best U. S. friend is Wall Street Plunger Bernard E. (“Sell ‘Em Ben”) Smith, who met Beaverbrook in 1930 when he sued him for libel.* Ben Smith sells the Beaver U. S. airplanes, talks to him several times a month on the transatlantic telephone and consults him on his own British publishing venture, Cavalcade, a TiMElike news magazine.

The Empire. On Nov. 20, 1936, Lord Beaverbrook arrived in Manhattan on a trip that was scheduled to take him to Arizona for his asthma. Why, asked ship newsmen, were Beaverbrook’s papers sitting on the Edward-Mrs. Simpson story? “Who? Me?” said the Beaver. “I know nothing about Mrs. Simpson.” A few hours later he turned around and went back to London, impishly letting it be known that the sea voyage had so benefited him that he might just continue to shuttle back & forth across the Atlantic.

The explanation for this whimsey was a solid fact. The King of England had put through a call to Lord Beaverbrook in Manhattan asking him to return and continue to advise His Majesty. Hurrying through the back door of Buckingham Palace, Beaverbrook was closeted with Edward for hours over endless Scotch-and-sodas. But it was then too late. The abdication had been agreed upon.

Even after the news was out Beaverbrook insisted on “restraint” from his own editors and cartoonists. His explanation when asked about this was: “I am a royalist.” He is also a Presbyterian (the Bible is read to him by .a subordinate each evening). But above all he is an Empire man.

The British Empire which is daily exalted in the stentorophonic Beaverbrook press is not the semi-religious conception of Disraeli, nor the gaudy military pageant of Kipling. It is a practical matter, in which plans for extracting power alcohol from nipa palms and wrapping paper from bamboo are seriously discussed as matters of statecraft. But it is also an Empire that is very close to today’s realities—an Empire usually on the defensive, hiding its weak spots, conserving its treasures and its energy.

To Beaverbrook, Britain’s frontier is not the Rhine of Herr Hitler, but South Africa. Beaverbrook’s Empire is thus the kind that would sign the pact of Munich, and the Express now praises Chamberlain as a “champ” who has bowled over all his foes—at least in England.

The Beaverbrook idea of Empire led him to urge defaulting on the U. S. War debts (although he is now a big hands-across-the-sea man for Empire’s sake), withdrawal from the League of Nations, and a European “solution” that would involve Britain in no boundary guarantees, loans, or alliances with any other country.

Lately the Express has also declared: 1) “Palestine . . . is not a British interest”; 2) “There must be a redistribution in Africa sooner or later”; and 3) “There is unrest among the German-speaking people of [Alsace].” This is the kind of Empire that Beaverbrook believes will best serve Britain’s future and save its millions of Beaverbrook readers from becoming bomb and bullet fodder. That Lord Beaverbrook does believe in it is almost the only thing that can be said of him without dispute.

If that kind of Empire fails, he knows that he will share deeply in the blame.

But he is ready for that too. Says he: “I’ve been criticized for almost everything else.”

*Express correspondents sometimes slip hot news items past foreign censors by addressing their cables to “lack Glass House, London.”

*The comparatively new and far more sedate Telegraph building is only a few doors from the Express. Fleet Street wags have compared them to a stockbroker taking his mistress to dinner.

*All English mass dailies still offer cheap accident insurance to subscribers, but last fortnight cut their top figure from £5,000 to £2,500 for railway victims. Subscribers killed in motor accidents get from £250 to £500.

*The Express picked up a story from the New York World erroneously linking Smith with a 1904 murder. The suit was settled out of court in Smith’s favor.

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